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Gad-ZOO-ks!: Take a trip on the wild side to Omaha's Henry Doorly Zoo

Parrots in the Lied Jungle at the Henry Doorly Zoo in Omaha, Neb.

OMAHA, Neb. -- The question just kept popping up:

"Oh, are you going to the zoo?"

Every time I'd tell somebody that Bryan and I were headed for Omaha, that was the inevitable query.

No, the zoo wasn't our goal on any of the previous trips we'd taken to the Nebraska city. A few years ago, Omaha became a regular destination in our Jeep travels, as we'd head south sometime in the spring with the hopes of being able to pop the top off the Wrangler. We'd usually spend one evening hanging out in Omaha's Old Market area -- full of quirky boutiques, antique stores and restaurants -- before moving on to another city or heading back north.

But after responding in the negative to the zoo question so many times, my curiosity finally got the better of me. What was it about Omaha's Henry Doorly Zoo that inspired so much interest?

A southerly journey in April provided the perfect opportunity to answer that quandary. The Saturday of our weekend excursion dawned sunny and warm -- the temperature that day, in fact, reached almost 90 degrees! -- and we, along with what seemed like every other person from within a 100-mile radius, headed to the South 10th Street location.

As we joined the long line at the zoo's entrance, I began to doubt the wisdom of this venture, but since we were parked about half a mile a way, it seemed prudent to forge ahead. After paying admission, Bryan and I ducked into the first building we came to and immediately entered a magical rainforest.

The Lied Jungle, according to information provided by the zoo, was its first "total immersion" exhibit. Visitors feel like they are actually walking through a jungle, filled with animals that are free-ranging or contained behind water and rock barriers. The Lied building contains three different habitats, representing rainforests in Asia, Africa and South America.

To view these habitats, we traversed across a rope bridge, followed winding paths and climbed from the forest floor up to the jungle canopy. Along the way, we spied a variety of jungle foliage -- palms, bamboo and orchids that we recognized and many other exotic varieties that we did not.

Among the branches and leaves we located birds and monkeys. The Lied Jungle is one of two accredited facilities to house both the red-backed bearded saki monkeys from the South American rainforest, and the silvery leaf moneys (aka ebony langurs) found in the Asian jungles.

When we weren't peering upward into the trees, we were looking down into pools of water, home to several varieties of otters and pygmy hippos and where the pig-like tapirs like to hang out and wallow in the mud.

One of the most stunning aspects of the Lied Jungle is its 50-foot waterfall -- Nebraska's second highest. Visitors can walk behind the cascade of water en route to Danger Point, where they can overlook the entire rainforest from above. It's a stunning view.

While the Lied Jungle has been a fixture at the Henry Doorly Zoo since 1992, one of its newest attractions is Expedition Madagascar, which opened just a year ago. Madagascar is considered one of the most biodiverse places in the world because it is home to the largest number of endemic (only found in that country) species of plants and animals.

Expedition Madagascar contains some of the Texas-sized island's most unusual animals in 14 indoor exhibits. Ring-tailed lemurs (pictured below right) live among manmade Baobab trees on their own island. Netted exhibits featuring ruffed lemurs and Coquerels Sifaka, yet another variety of lemur, allow them to be photographed without obstruction.

The zoo's Hubbard Gorilla Valley is promoted as a place "where gorillas roam free and the visitors are on display," and at times it does feel like the gorillas are as fascinated with the visitors as the visitors are with them. Animals and people interact through specially designed windows and acrylic hemispheres, getting up close and personal. At one point, the exhibit's largest gorilla came right up to the window, turning his back and plugging his ears with his fingers -- perhaps indicating annoyance with his total lack of privacy -- while a young girl tried to get his attention (photo at left)

Another favorite moment was when a large chimpanzee sprawled out across the top of an acrylic bubble, and I was able to get a clear photograph from within a few inches of the ape (photo below).

After spending a lot of time trekking through the jungles, Bryan and I experienced a complete change of scenery in the zoo's Desert Dome -- noted to be the world's largest indoor desert. The geodesic dome encompasses 84,000 square feet of space on two levels. Beneath the Desert Dome lies Kingdoms of the Night -- the world's largest nocturnal exhibit and, in my opinion, the outright creepiest part of the zoo, with creatures that screech and wriggle and go bump in the night. Too many snakes and lizards and bats and rat-like animals for me -- and it was easy to lose one's bearings in the dimly lit spaces.

Divided by a 55-foot-tall "mountain," the dome replicates three desert settings: the Namib Desert of southern Africa; the Red Center of Australia; and the Sonoran desert of southwest North America.

After spending so much time in the indoor exhibits, Bryan and I were content to spend the rest of the afternoon roaming among the more traditional outdoor zoo areas. We spent some time watching the sea lions cavorting in their pool before trekking up Pachyderm Hill to gaze upon the rhinoceros, and then marveled at the thousands of greedy koi fish begin fed from a bridge above their pond.

By this time, our feet were beginning to hurt and some ominous clouds had appeared in the sky, so we started the long trek back to our vehicle.

Did we see all there was to see at the Henry Doorly Zoo? Certainly not. We will likely have to make another trip there to take in more of the sights, such as the Lozier Imax Theater, Scott Aquarium and Simmons Aviary.

And the next time somebody tells me that they are going to Omaha, I will be tempted to ask, "Oh, are you going to the zoo?"

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Beth Rickers

Beth Rickers is the veteran in the newspaper staff with 25 years as the Daily Globe's Features Editor. Interests include cooking, traveling and beer tasting and making with her home-brewing husband, Bryan. She writes an Area Voices blog called Lagniappe, which is a Creole term that means "a little something extra." It can be found at  

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